Tiki time 

It’s no secret that Tiki, that lovable little red-eyed idol, is a hot commodity these days. Legions of metro Detroiters are captivated by his snarling — yet charming — grimace, and these devoted “Tikiphiles” have anxiously awaited the future of Detroit’s own long-lost temple of Polynesian paradise, the Chin Tiki, since reconstruction plans were announced last year (“Freaky over Tiki,” Metro Times, Sept. 24, 2003).

Tiki is a surprisingly diverse cult phenomenon, its widespread appeal drawing in both twentysomething scenesters and suburban family types. For several years now, Tikiphiles across the nation have organized conventions, where liked-minded souls convene to don Hawaiian shirts, compare Tiki mug collections, and most importantly, down some of the famous, curiously named potent potables that comprise any decent Tiki bar.

Conventions in Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Springs have drawn hundreds of attendees; now, Detroit is joining in — on a much smaller scale — with its first mini-Tiki gathering, Return to Paradise: The Motor City Tiki Art Show, taking place at Chin’s restaurant in Livonia.

The primary focus of this gathering is Tiki-inspired artwork, with paintings, furniture (including some home Tiki bars) and carvings from artists like Jimé Litwalk, a tattooist for Berkley’s Electric Superstition; Tiki carver Jimmy Robinson from Ohio; local painter Brian Cunningham; Dave Burke of California; and many more. All pieces on display will be available for purchase.

The art show is the brainchild of Litwalk, co-owner of the Cat’s Meow Nancy Hay, and rockabilly DJ Del Villarreal, all confessed Tikiphiles. Hay’s store is a prime source for Tiki in the area, and she and husband Keith are rabid Tiki collectors; Litwalk has inked many a Tiki tattoo and has one himself; and Villarreal DJ’d at last year’s Chicago Tiki convention, Exotica 2003.

The event will include a raffle for rare collector’s items straight from the long-dormant Chin Tiki: an original menu, a postcard and two unusual ashtrays. There will also be special guests: George Nakashima, who helped design and supervise construction of the Mauna Loa restaurant, Detroit’s long lost Polynesian oasis built in 1967 and razed just a few years later, as well as the greatest Tiki temple still standing, the Mai Kai restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale.

Also in attendance: Marvin Chin, the owner and designer of both the Chin Tiki and Chin’s in Livonia. Chin’s was the precursor to the larger and more sumptuous Chin Tiki; the cozy little Livonia Chinese restaurant is bedecked with plenty of bamboo, blowfish lamps, and of course, Tikis.

Chin began reconstruction efforts on the Chin Tiki last summer, inspired in part by renewed interest in the restaurant that was sparked by its brief cameo in Eminem’s film 8 Mile. However, progress is slow: Chin is funding the project from his own pocket, doing the restorations himself with a skeleton crew. He’s still looking to reopen, but is in search of financial backers to keep the project going.

Prior to the Metro Times article, Chin was unaware that so many Detroiters were fascinated with the pop-culture phenomenon.

“I never knew so many people enjoyed Tiki,” says Chin. “A lot of people are really interested, it’s like they worship it.”

Litwalk agrees that Tiki collecting can verge on addiction for the truly devoted.

“You’re either really into it, or you’re not,” says Litwalk, who describes his Tiki collection as “a small obsession.”


Return to Paradise: The Motor City Tiki Art Show takes place on Saturday, June 19, from 6 - 11 p.m.; Hawaiian attire is encouraged. Chin’s is located at 28205 Plymouth Road in Livonia. Admission is free. Call 734-525-CHIN for more info.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at sklein@metrotimes.com

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